If you’re from Topeka, you can go to Kansas City. If you’re from Kansas City, you can go to Chicago. If you’re from Chicago, you can go to New York. But if you’re from Manhattan, where can you go? By the time I was 35, I had to go to Sweden just to calm down.
These are not the people who drill holes in cheese and yodel. They are not a fondue people. Their trains are often late, their mountains are unimpressive and their chocolate is adequate at best.
One day I was using the osthyvel (special cheese slicer) on a hunk of “grevé” cheese, and Lena, Lina, Helena and Lene started yelling at me. “We always know when you’ve been in the cheese! It looks like a ski-slope!” Apparently it is of great importance that every slice attempt to “even out” the cheese level. All Swedes are brought up to do this. I call this enlightening episode: “Respect the Cheese Form!”
“Lågom” means “not too little, not too much. Just Right.” The Middle Road. Social Democracy. Fairness. Even-ness. Cheese. Although Swedish is a word-poor language, they have a few we don’t. They have a word for the crime of falsely washing the dishes in a quick and sloppy way. “Fuskdiska!”
These are the people who brought you The Nobel Prize, the Volvo, the smörgåsbord, free day care, suicide and full frontal nudity. These are the blondes. Enormous Blonde Herring-scented Nauseatingly Fair-minded Nymphomaniacs in Clogs.
Swedish people travel with sheets and towels. They cannot be stopped. You can try saying; “You don’t need to bring your sheets and towels. I have everything here” but they will bring them all the same.
If you go on a vacation with a Swede, watch out, because when exposed to direct sunlight, they tend to burst into flame.
Sweden has an extremely active yogurt culture. Almost frantic. Choose between “filmjölk”, kefir, and yogurt. Yogurt is available in Japanese style, Russian style, “farmer” style, “normal” style and liquid style, each in a stupefying array of flavors, including cloudberry. Filmjölk tastes sourer, but frankly I don’t understand the difference. You can buy no fat, low fat, medium low fat, medium fat, medium-high and “call your cardiologist” versions of all these things as well as “long” filmjölk, whatever that is.
Swedes don’t like to talk. Except at the movies.
You can buy herring in any gas station.
Swedes squeeze food out of tubes. Among many other choices, liver paté, mushroom/cheese spread, crab paste, and the infamous “Kalle’s Kaviar” (lumpfish roe) are very popular. My favorite is black pepper/cognac. There are special gizmos in refrigerators to hold the tubes. They squirt this stuff onto the knäckebröd (crispbread) which they store in the special cupboard above the fridge. For an average of fourteen years. It keeps rather well.
Beer is available in strong, medium and light versions. The most oft-spoken words are “En stor stark.” A big strong one.
Many of my friends, both men and women, use “snus.” Chewing tobacco. Stuffed into their gums, this results in a distinctive, puffy demeanor.
Whatever their sex life may include, Swedish people sleep in single beds. Peculiar. But cozy.
Swedes eat a lot of korv (hot dogs) with mos (mashed potatoes) on top. When they speak English they invariably say, “smashed potatoes” and I can’t correct them; it’s too charming. Then there are the ketchup udders. At every korv kiosk (hot dog stand) there is a shocking lineup of assorted mustards and ketchups, each in a long, squeezable rubber udder. There’s no other way to describe them. Udders.
Christmas means one thing. Festive Pigs.
Eye drops are illegal. Crazy glue is illegal. Hair dryers never get really hot. Sweden protects you.
I love Sweden. It’s boring, but in a good way.
On every street there are five or six hair “salonger.” Most have frightening English names, like “Klipper Crazy.” I am convinced they’re a front for some illegal activity. Because if they’re for real, it’s surprising that anyone has a hair left on their head.
Dentists get mad at you because you don’t “toothpick”, not because you don’t floss.
Toilet paper is packaged in gigantic, 24 roll bales, wrapped in clear plastic with a handle on top. People run around in public with these, constantly and shamelessly.
There’s something called the Swedish standard, and it’s pretty high. Fairness and Equality means that you can buy a very good Merlot in Lappland. This is part of the Swedish standard. Liquor is sold only in state-run stores, called “SystemBolaget”, or, as it’s more popularly known, “Systemet.” The System. The System closes at 6 PM, and 2 PM on Saturdays. The most Swedish thing one can do is to go to Systemet on Friday at 5. You will take a “nummerlapp” (a number from the Turn-o-Matic) and wait calmly and patiently for your turn to insure a desperately rowdy weekend. The Turn-o-Matic is an invention of which the Swedes are very proud. Even at the police station you have to take a “nummerlapp.” And wait. Enterprising drunks outside the shop might sell you a low number for a few kronor. Otherwise, bring literature.
The most serious television news shows interview political figures with a charming and homey milieu, including flowered curtains, blond wood, colorful pillows, pastries and coffee. On doilies. “Nightline,” take note: Wouldn’t Condoleeza Rice enjoy a freshly baked cinnamon bun?
Even after years of psychotherapy, my most burning issue is a complete lack of patience. Seemingly, Sweden has been designed especially to help me learn this virtue. There are not enough people in Sweden. Even at fancy restaurants, some element is always self -service. It’s not uncommon to clear one’s own table. The salad, bread and water are on the sideboard. Help yourself. No. Help me.
The waitress, the cashier, the mechanic, the cleaning lady and you are all equals. Not only is the customer not always right, they’re just plain lucky to receive service of any kind.
I want to buy an apartment here, so I had a frank conversation with immigration. It went something like this:
LR: I’m an American citizen, but I want to buy a house in Sweden. What are the rules for residency here?
IM: So you’re married to a Swede?
LR: No, I’m not married.
IM: Oh, so sorry. So you’re living with a Swedish man, then.
LR: No. But I once was married to a Swedish man.
IM: Okay, then!
LR: But we divorced in 1985.
IM: That’s too bad.
LR: You’re telling me!
IM: So, you have children in Sweden? Swedish children?
LR: No. No children.
IM: No children? Oh, well. Perhaps a Swedish company employs you.
LR: No, not employed.
IM: No job?
LR: I’m freelance.
LR: But I have a lot of friends here.
IM: Oh, friends don’t count.
IM: But what reason could you possibly have to want to live here?
LR: You make me feel like I have no reason to want to live at all.
Wait. I have an ex mother-in-law in Helsingborg.
IM: That doesn’t mean anything.
LR: But she loves me very much!
IM: Look, we here in Sweden are very liberal. You don’t have to be married. But to live here you have to have a serious relationship. Like for a couple of months.
LR: A couple of months? Is that all you people care about? Sex? I have to be having Swedish sex?
IM: Well, yeah!
LR: I’ll see what I can do.
The city of Gothenburg was built on highly absorbent clay. Legend has it that this clay makes one sink in and stay. There might be something to that.
© 2008 Laurie Rosenwald